Posts filed under 'Gospel Music and Spirituals'

Blind Boys of Alabama – Spirit of the Century & Higher Ground


Title: Spirit of the Century

Artist: Blind Boys of Alabama

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: May 13, 2016



Title: Higher Ground

Artist: Blind Boys of Alabama

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: May 13, 2016



Omnivore Recordings is releasing expanded versions of two definitive albums by the Blind Boys of Alabama, Spirit of the Century and Higher Ground. Each album includes previously unreleased recordings drawn from live performances.

Spirit of the Century, originally released in 2001, won a Grammy for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. This is all the more impressive since the Blind Boys of Alabama were already 60 years into their career at that point. More recently, a version of the album’s song “Way Down in the Hole” gained national attention when it was used as the theme song for the first season of HBO’s The Wire. The expanded reissue includes seven previously unissued tracks recorded live at The Bottom Line in New York City in 2001.

Released a year later, Higher Ground featured musical backing from Robert Randolph & the Family Band, as well as multiple guest appearances from Ben Harper. The album rearranged traditional hymns as well as classic songs by Curtis Mayfield, Funkadelic, and Aretha Franklin, and won the group their second consecutive Grammy. The expanded edition includes another seven previously unreleased tracks that were recorded live on KCRW radio’s Morning Becomes Eclectic show in 2002.

Both reissues include new essays by author Davin Seay, which help bring a fresh perspective to these classic albums and bonus tracks.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review May 2nd, 2016

Lecrae – Church Clothes 3


Title: Church Clothes 3

Artist: Lecrae

Formats: CD, MP3

Label: Reach Records

Release date: January 15, 2016


Lecrae has never been one to shy away from controversy, from criticizing rappers who glorify violence on his Grammy-winning Gravity to his personal story about abortion on his last album Anomaly. His latest project, Church Clothes 3 (often abbreviated CC3) is no different. He dropped the ten-track album without warning on January 15, and it fully embraces racial politics in a new way for Lecrae while retaining his characteristic Christian messages.

The first two Church Clothes mixtapes were produced by Don Cannon (50 Cent, Ludacris), and CC3 was produced by S1 (Kanye West, Jay-Z). All three have excellent production with beats that sound typical of what one hears from mainstream hip hop. CC3 reached the number one slot on Billboard’s Rap/Hip-Hop Album charts within a week of being released, showcasing Lecrae’s tendency to cross genre boundaries despite being known as a gospel rapper.

Central to the album and its political messages is the short film that was released simultaneously, featuring the songs “It Is What It Is,” “Gangland,” “Déjà Vu,” and “Misconceptions 3.” The video follows a young gang member who gets shot:

The opening track, “Freedom,” frames the concept through two lenses: freedom as spiritual salvation and freedom from racial injustice. The hook, sung by Dallas vocalist N’dambi, is smooth soul and claims freedom as a mindset. The song samples a gospel chorus in the background, which is chopped up in the verses, creating holy syncopation. There are clear influences of Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed To Pimp A Butterfly throughout the entitle album and video, but this song includes a direct reference to the Lamar’s “King Kunta.”

Gangland,” featuring Propaganda, is the most overtly political song on CC3. Referencing the New Jim Crow and the government’s role in allowing drugs to permeate African American communities, the track includes spoken narration in between verses that criticize the criminal justice system and explain the origins of gangs in the United States. Maybe most controversial to Lecrae’s white, Christian fan base may be the lyrics in Propaganda’s verse: “When American churches scuff they Toms on our brother’s dead bodies / As they march to stop gay marriage / We had issues with Planned Parenthood too / We just cared about black lives outside the womb just as much as in.”

The song “Can’t Do You,” featuring the rapper E-40, brushes off haters, encouraging the listener to “do you.” It’s backed by a standard hand-clapping beat and a R&B chorus sung by Drew Allen. Another standout track is “Misconceptions 3,” featuring John Givez, JGivens & Jackie Hill Perry. As the title indicates, it is the third in a series of tracks about misconceptions that appear on the first two Church Clothes albums. The beat is fast and hard, and indiscriminate chanting in the background helps moves the song forward. Lecrae lets these rappers shine on the track, with fast flows and witty lyrics such as “They shocked to see us like Donald Trump up in a taqueria.”

Lecrae, who marched with #BlackLivesMatter protestors in Atlanta last year, recently said on CNN that he wants to “educate and help” people who don’t see the reality of racism in the United States. Church Clothes 3 certainly makes a bold step in that direction, as Lecrae explains the complexities of racism, unashamedly continuing to change the way people view the world.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review April 1st, 2016

Bri – Keys To My Heart


Title: Keys to My Heart

Artist: Bri

Label: Marquis Boone Enterprises/Tyscot

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 25, 2016


Briana Babineaux, known simply as Bri, started singing at age five in the Lafayette, Louisiana church where her stepfather was a pastor. Now 21 years old and studying criminal justice, she never considered a career as a singer until one of her friends posted a video of her singing “Make Me Over” by Tonex on YouTube, which became a viral sensation.

Rising up through social media, Bri has become a full-fledged gospel star, releasing her debut album Keys to My Heart through Marquis Boone Enterprises and Tyscot Records. Her first gospel single, “I’ll Be the One,” came out last June and reached the top spot on Billboard’s Gospel Digital Songs chart. This heartfelt song includes a call and response chorus in which Bri offers her life to God:

Many gospel artists have encouraged and supported Bri on her debut album. Recording artist Bryan Andrew Wilson composed the warm, stripped-down ballad “Grace” especially for Bri, and Christian artist Reece wrote “Love You Forever.” The latter is evocative of ‘90s R&B girl groups, especially in the outro that features snapping, with Bri riffing both in melodies and speech as the song fades out.

Trying her hand as a singer-songwriter, Bri wrote her first compositions for the album—“Jacob’s Song” and its reprise “I’m Desperate.” They are both dynamic, with reverently quiet moments that build until the music swells and Bri belts outs skillfully embellished runs and high notes in the choruses.

In Keys to My Heart, Bri puts her soul into every song she sings, proving that she’s not just a social media star, but a rising gospel star with a lot to say.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review April 1st, 2016

Lynda Randle – Ageless Hymns: Songs of Joy

Lynda Randle

Title: Ageless Hymns: Songs of Joy

Artist: Lynda Randle

Label: Lynda Randle Ministries/Gaither Music Group

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 15, 2016


Growing up in Washington, D.C as the middle child of seven kids, Lynda Randle learned many traditional hymns from her family. During a difficult period when she was caring for her sick mother, Randle decided to record many of these hymns in honor of her parents. Ageless Hymns: Songs of Joy is the final installment in this series of three albums “dedicated to timeless, classic songs of faith.” The series is distributed through Gaither Music, a Christian music group powerhouse created and run by native Hoosiers Bill and Gloria Gaither in Alexandria, Indiana. Randle is one of the only African American artists to appear regularly at Gaither Homecomings, and has released many contemporary Christian albums and DVDs as part of the Gaither Gospel Series.

All the songs on Ageless Hymns: Songs of Joy are meant to “uplift, renew, and encourage the soul.” They include traditional hymns such as “Real, Real,” “The Windows of Heaven,” and “This Joy I Have.” The album also features originals, such as “He Touched Me” written by Bill Gaither, and “In You I Find My Joy,” written by Randle, who has composed and arranged hundreds of songs over the course of her career.

Randle’s dedication to her faith is present throughout the whole album, and her passionate, soulful voice amplifies and gives life to these traditional hymns.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review March 1st, 2016

Sam Butler – Raise Your Hands!

sam butler_raise your hands

Title: Raise Your Hands!

Artist: Sam Butler

Label: Severn Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 16, 2015


White rock musicians drawing inspiration from black gospel music is a common story. Less common are black gospel musicians recording sacred songs written by white rock musicians.

Producer Brian Brinkerhoff thought of the latter when he contacted guitarist and singer Sam Butler about doing an album together. Butler—known for his work with the Blind Boys of Alabama and Clarence Fountain—liked the proposal. The two hired a talented trio of musicians—pedal steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier, drummer Marco Giovino, and bassist Viktor Krauss—and selected songs by U2, Eric Clapton, and Van Morrison, to name a few, to record. Over three days—which Brinkerhoff called a “musical worship service”—Raise Your Hands! was born.

Musically, the album moves between blues-rock grooves and songs of reflective contemplation. Tom Waits’ “Gospel Train” is a swampy invocation to join the Lord’s ride and evade the Devil’s foolishness. “Heaven’s Wall” has a similar heaviness, laid over an extended vamp. On the other hand, “Sanctuary” is a reverb-soaked ballad, with an earthy, Americana sound. Between these two poles, Butler’s dynamic voice, passionate interpretation, and praise for the Lord are the album’s common threads.

While Butler is the centerpiece of Raise Your Hands!, pedal steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier is the star. Collier was raised in the House of God Congregation—known for producing many talented pedal steel musicians. Collier’s solos on “Magnificent” and “Lead Me Father” are bold, soaring statements, while his sensitive accompaniment on the album’s slower songs is ever-tasteful. Drummer Marco Giovino, too, shines on Curtis Mayfield’s “Wherever You Leadth” and Victor Krauss is consistent throughout the release.

Raise Your Hands! is an album that blurs musical lines. Sacred and secular, rock and gospel, bandleader and band member are productively eschewed, in service of the Lord and His gift of good music.


Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach

View review February 2nd, 2016

Staple Singers – Faith & Grace: A Family Journey, 1953-1976

staple singers faith and grace a family journey

Title: Faith & Grace – A Family Journey, 1953-1976

Artist: Staple Singers

Label: Stax/Concord

Formats: 4-CD + 7-inch vinyl Box Set

Release date: November 13, 2015


This is proving to be a great year for fans of the Staple Singers. In March, Legacy re-issued their 1965 album, Freedom Highway Complete: Recorded Live at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church (reviewed here), to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the subsequent Selma to Montgomery march—a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Now, just in time for the holidays, we’re blessed with Concord’s limited edition 4-CD box set, Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976, the first comprehensive overview of the group’s career. Drawing from over two decades of material in the vaults, the set includes both live and studio recordings. Also included are some tempting never-before-released rarities, of which the pièce de résistance is the bonus 7-inch vinyl disc featuring the earliest known recordings of the group (“Faith and Grace” ; “These Are They”) from a 1953 limited edition self-released 78-rpm disc on the Royal label.

Family patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples, a guitarist and singer noted for his high tenor voice and falsetto, formed the Staples Singers in 1949 with his son, Pervis (tenor), and two of his young daughters, Cleotha (alto) and Mavis (contralto and bass)—who usually sang lead with her father. Another daughter, Yvonne, would later join the quartet, alternating with Pervis and Cleotha. Originally from Mississippi, Pops was exposed to both secular music, primarily the Delta blues, as well as sacred, performing in church choirs and with the vocal group Golden Trumpets. When the family moved to Chicago in the 1930s, bringing their country styles with them, they were initially ridiculed in the big city (as were most rural southerners during the Great Migration). However, it would be this unique fusion of country blues, folk spirituals and gospel quartet influences that propelled the family to stardom—especially in the late 1950s and 1960s with the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and subsequent flowering of soul music.

Disc one, sequenced chronologically, covers the early years from 1953-1960. Opening with two songs recorded on September 7, 1953, the group lays into Pops Staple’s original “It Rained Children” (United 165) and a traditional song “I Just Can’t Keep It to Myself” (Gospel/Savoy LP 3001), both accompanied on piano by Evelyn Gay of the popular Gay Sisters, who only sat in at the insistence of the studio head. All of the remaining songs were accompanied by Pops on guitar and were recorded at Chicago’s Universal Studios for release on the African American owned Vee-Jay label, where Ewart Abner was responsible for signing the group. Also included is the previously unreleased song—“I’ve Got a New Home” from 1955. This disc brings out the raw gospel “straight from the church” side of the Staple Singers and, with the exception of their first major hit “Uncloudy Day,” many of these songs are likely not well-known to the average listener. The disc also highlights the remarkable talents of the precocious Mavis, who was only 14 when the initial tracks were recorded.

Disc two continues with Vee-Jay recordings from 1960-1961, beginning with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and including traditional songs such as “Swing Low” and “Stand By Me.” A previously unreleased full version of the medley “Too Close/I’m On My Way Home/I’m Coming Home/He’s Alright” from a live performance recorded in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1960 is a highlight of this disc. When the group moved over to the New York based Riverside label in 1962, they released the album Hammer and Nails (Riverside 3501). Under the direction of Orrin Keepnews, the seven songs included here from Hammer and Nails showcase a much more pop-oriented sound, purposefully targeted to a broader audience well beyond the Black church. The remaining tracks are drawn from several Riverside albums: “There Was a Star” and “Use What You Got” (with Maceo Woods on organ) from the Christmas album The 25th Day of December (Riverside 3513); “Let That Liar Alone” and the popular folk songs “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “This Land Is Your Land” from the album This Land, with Phil Upchurch and Johnny Pate on bass (Riverside 3524); “I Know I’ve Been Changed” from the album Great Day (Milestone M 470280, though this citation does not appear in the notes) ; and “I Can’t Help From Cryin’ Sometime” from the album This Little Light (Riverside 3527).

Disc 3 represents the greatest transitional period, including material from 1964-1969 recorded for several labels: three tracks from Riverside (all from This Little Light), then moving on to “Wish I Had Answered” from the Live at Newport album on Vanguard; two tracks recorded for the D-Town label’s devotional series including “Tell Him What You Want” and I’ll Fly Away”; 11 tracks from the Epic label which includes their socially conscious song “Freedom Highway;” and three of their first songs on the Stax label including “Long Walk to D.C.,” “Slow Train” and “Got to Be Some Changes.”

Disc 4 is comprised almost entirely of the Staple Singers’ Stax output, where they were molded into soul music superstars. Included is their great message song about reparations, “When Will We Be Paid,” and “The Ghetto” from the albums Soul Folk in Action and We’ll Get Over, plus their biggest hit of all time, “Respect Yourself,” and four other songs from the album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself. Also included are two songs from the album Be What You Are, “Back Road Into Town” from City in the Sky, and “Let’s Do It Again,” released on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label. The set closes with a version of the song “The Weight,” recorded in 1976 with The Band (featuring Levon Helm) for the famous Martin Scorsese documentary The Last Waltz, plus a bonus demo track of “Respect Yourself.”

The handsome packaging includes a forward by Mavis Staples along with informative liner notes by James Miller, gospel historian Opal Louis Nations, and compilation producer Joe McEwen, accompanied by many full color photographs. It should be noted that a few typos and omissions have crept into the text, and the CD sleeves are too tight and must be loosened to allow safe removal of the discs. But overall this is a fabulous tribute to the Staple Singers, covering the full range of their output from the “country gospel sounds of the Mississippi Delta” to the peak of their career as soul royalty, “God’s greatest hitmakers,” and icons of the Civil Rights Movement. Don’t wait too long to purchase a copy—this set may be sold out by the end of the year.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review December 2nd, 2015

Anthony Brown and group therAPy – Everyday Jesus

anthony brown group therapy everyday jesus

Title: Everyday Jesus

Artist: Anthony Brown and group therAPy

Label: Tyscot Music and Entertainment

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: July 18, 2015



For some, the Lord is experienced through songs that make them shout; for others, quiet introspection leads them to Grace. Musician, vocalist, and songwriter Anthony Brown understands this about his audience. On his sophomore release, Everyday Jesus, Brown—along with the angelic voices of his choir, group therAPy, and his outstanding band—provides a pallet of musical offerings with a single intention: to bring listeners closer to the Lord.

The first-half of Everyday Jesus is full of high-energy praise. “I Am (Miracle)”—a gospel classic in the making—features a danceable chorus reminiscent of EDM and a strong message to non-believers: if you want to know the miracle of Jesus, just look at me. “What He’s Done (I’m the One)” is an up-tempo nod to down-home church. The second half of Everyday Jesus features a more-subtle musical approach. “Without You” opens with the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” beautifully interpreted by singer Shirley Dailey, and “The Same” features a memorable pentatonic melody accompanied by nuanced rhythmic accompaniment. Taken together, Everyday Jesus is a highly-inclusive release.

One of the results of this inclusivity is commercial success. The album has already reached #1 on Billboard’s gospel music charts and the album’s single, “Worth,” holds steady at #2 on Billboard’s Gospel airplay and Gospel digital songs charts at the time of this writing. Brown’s success also has to do with the way that he understands his relationship with the Lord. For Brown, a relationship with Jesus is not one of separation, but is a quotidian relationship—hence, the album’s title is Everyday Jesus. For his listeners, the album serves as a therapeutic musical testimony of how near God can be as we move through our everyday lives.

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Everyday Jesus is a strong performance and full of anointing. This release is destined to bring Anthony Brown’s talent as a singer, songwriter, and bandleader to the heights—and perhaps even the canon—of contemporary gospel music.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach

View review December 2nd, 2015

Danetra Moore – Light in the Dark

danetra moore_light in the dark

Title: Light in the Dark

Artist: Danetra Moore

Label: Tyscot Music and Entertainment

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: July 10, 2015



On Light in the Dark, Danetra Moore gets right to the point. The first song, “If God Be for You,” begins with the lyric:

Stepping out the background,
finally get a chance to tell my story

Indeed, after years of working as a back-up singer for Kirk Franklin, Vicki Winans, and Angie Stone, and a third place finish on Season Five of BET’s Sunday Best, Moore earned a record deal with the Tyscot label in 2013. Light in the Dark—her first album as a solo gospel artistshows that Moore’s prior experience has served her well.

Moore is impressive in her vocal performance and arranging on this release. On “Love of My Life,” Moore’s voice melismatically delivers in ranges high and low, while the reverb-drenched background vocals provide a solid accompaniment to her lead. “He Changed Me” is a funky duet between Moore and label-mate Rance Allen, showing that Moore is comfortable in gospel that is both contemporary and traditional. It should not surprise that Moore grew up in a family of musicians who call the church home.

Perhaps the only thing stronger than Moore’s voice on Light in the Dark is her faith. The album’s single, “Only God Can,” sings of the power of the Lord, in matters both spiritual and worldly. “All I Can Do is Pray”—released as a single following Moore’s success on Sunday Best and included on Light in the Dark—suggests that praying and patience are the only remedies to the problems of the world. These songs suggest a central message in Moore’s debut: Jesus Christ is, and has been, the source of her accomplishments.

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Yet, an expression of her faith is not the sole intention of Light in the Dark. The album’s glossy production shows that Moore is centered on a successful commercial career. The majority of the tracks were produced by Pierre “The Maven” Medor—a Grammy-nominated artist working in Atlanta whose résumé includes work with Jagged Edge, Usher, and Mary J. Blige. The album reflects Medor’s experience in contemporary R&B, yet is subtle enough that we never forget: Moore is the leader on Light in the Dark.

The singer’s first album is not about breaking musical rules. Rather, Danetra Moore’s Light in the Dark is a solid statement by an up-and-coming gospel artist who puts the Lord first, but never loses sight of her personal ambitions.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach

View review December 2nd, 2015

Marion Williams – Packin’ Up

marion williams_packin up

Title: Packin’ Up

Artist: Marion Williams

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 30, 2015



Distinguished gospel scholar and producer Anthony Heilbut has been responsible for many historical compilations, and this time around he’s managed to unearth 13 previously unreleased tracks recorded by Marion Williams (1927-1994)—one of the greatest gospel singers of all time. Packin’ Up: The Best of Marion Williams combines these unissued gems with 13 additional tracks. The selections were recorded over a 35-year period, beginning with Williams leading the Famous Ward Singers in definitive performances of “Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Packin’ Up” at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival (previously unreleased versions), and concluding with a haunting 1993 recording of the socially conscious “I’m a Stranger,” about “homeless, hungry people out on the street.”

The album opens with another previously unreleased 1993 track, “Press on Like the Bible Said,” a gospel blues shouter featuring Herbert Pickard on organ, Eddie Brown on piano, and Jonathan Dubose on guitar. Other highlights include the gospel blues rendition of “Nobody Knows, Nobody Cares,” her signature version of “Didn’t It Rain,” and her hair-raising performance of “When Death Shall Determine My Stay Here” (backed by James Perry on organ), where “she was clearly struck to the depth of her sanctified soul” (Heilbut).

Those unfamiliar with Marion Williams will likely be astonished not only by her vocal prowess, four octave range, and powerful delivery—but also by the wide range of her sound, from traditional gospel to songs that incorporate blues, jazz, folk and rock ‘n’ roll. This compilation would be ideal for classroom use, illustrating the links between gospel and secular music genres, as well as Williams’ influence on artists ranging from Little Richard and James Brown to Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and the Beatles. Packin’ Up is accompanied by a booklet with extensive liner notes by Heilbut and illustrated with archival images from his personal collection.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review November 2nd, 2015

Swan Silvertones – Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection

Swan Silvertones Amen Amen Amen the Essential collection._SX355_

Title: Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection

Artist: Swan Silvertones

Label: S’more Entertainment/Rockbeat Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 23, 2015

Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection is an inspired re-issue by the Swan Silvertones—once referred to by guitarist Al Kooper as the “Beatles of gospel”—whose voices and arrangements raise this collection to heavenly heights. The recordings on this collection were first issued on Specialty and Vee-Jay Records between 1950 and 1963, and now reissued on S’more Entertainment/Rock Beat Records.

Leading the Swan Silvertones during this period was Claude Jeter, an anointed tenor born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1914. While the group’s line-up changed in 1956 and 1959, Claude Jeter’s leadership remained steadfast during the thirteen years highlighted on Amen, Amen, Amen. Thus, these recordings become a spotlight of Jeter’s artistic contribution to the Swan Silvertones and allow listeners to hear the evolution of his voice, as well as his ensemble.

“The Day Will Surely Come,” the “A side” of the group’s first single on Specialty in 1952, demonstrates Jeter’s smooth lead tenor and songwriting abilities. Jeter’s genius—his sweet vocal falsetto—is heard in the brilliant rendition of “I’m Coming Home,” recorded just a year later. Jeter’s soaring falsetto—as well as the musical excellence of the Swan Silvertones—is perhaps best exemplified through “Mary Don’t You Weep,” released by Vee-Jay in 1959 and selected for induction into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2014. Throughout these recordings, the accompanying singers and instrumentalists in the Swan Silvertones provide a foundation, both swinging and solid, for the lead voices of Jeter, Soloman Womack, Rev. Robert Crenshaw, and Paul Owens, to praise the Lord.

Despite the quality of these recordings, the packaging of Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection leaves the reader wanting more. A glaring omission is the presence of captions on the included photographs, leaving readers puzzled as to the date of the images and individuals pictured. This is especially puzzling as the album’s producer, Michael Ochs, is a noted photographic archivist specializing in music photography. Strengthening this collection are Mark Humphrey’s liner notes, which provide a focused overview of the Swan Silvertones during the time of these recordings.

Claude Jeter is cited as an influence by a number of iconic American musicians such as Al Green and Paul Simon—the latter of whom credits Jeter with inspiring the Simon and Garfunkel classic, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection serves a timely reminder that Claude Jeter’s falsetto, as well as the musicians in the Swan Silvertones, cannot be overlooked in histories of sacred, and secular, American popular music.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach


View review September 2nd, 2015

Judah Band – TROG: The Return of Glory


Title: TROG: The Return of Glory

Artist: Judah Band

Label: Xist Music/Malaco

Formats: Limited edition CD + DVD, MP3

Release date: March 31, 2015



The Indianapolis, Indiana based group Judah Band is bringing funky grooves and an edgy style to gospel music lovers throughout the U.S. Founded by lead vocalist and songwriter G. Randy Weston, the group is comprised of five men and three women, several with ties to Indiana University’s IU Soul Revue including vocalist Chauneesha “Neesha” Lester and keyboardist and producer, Terrance “T Denn” Dennie. In March of this year they released their debut album TROG: The Return of Glory, a high charged collection of songs meant to inspire listeners to praise and trust God.  While rooted in gospel and praise and worship music, this project is heavily influenced by the hard hitting electric guitar and drums licks of rock as well as the colorful electronic manipulated vocals prominent in contemporary pop music. This CD + DVD edition features songs from their live recording session at The Caring Place Church in Indianapolis. Using a decidedly futuristic, “secret agent” influenced style, the Judah Band outlines their mission as “restoring the reputation of God” by encouraging believers to broaden their view of the divinity of God and to worship Him in their own unique ways.

The album opens with a declaration of their purpose and segues into the explosive track, “Get Up!” which features an exciting call and response led by Weston. While lyrically simple, the track features musical complexity with unpredictable rhythmic changes and unexpected, even disjointed harmonies. The songs on the first half of this project such as “Praise Your Name,” “Hallelujah,” and “God Can,”  follow a general congregational praise and worship format with simple melodies, repeated text, call and response, and frequent modulations heightening the worship experience.

Interestingly, several of the tracks on the second half of the album feature a fun stylistic flair that is upbeat and danceable. The song “Up N’ Praise Him,” is heavily influenced by the swing era jazz piece “Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing),” by Louis Prima. In the live recording, singers with expandable fans in hand dance in ways reminiscent of African American church “shouting” (holy dancing) of the mid-20th century. The music video for this song also pays homage to this time period with dress and choreography drawn directly from the swing era:

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Judah Band continues this walk down musical memory lane with “Free to Be Me,” which borrows from the 1950s dance craze popularized by Johnny Otis’s “Willie and the Hand Jive.” True to form, the singers perform the popular choreography and teach it to their energetic crowd during the musical interjections.

TROG also features two rather introspective pieces: “Just Hold On” and “Sing With Me.” The former is aimed at encouraging listeners to persevere in the midst of great despair. The latter is a prayerful daydream about making music so captivating and powerful that God would be compelled to sing along with His worshipers. With a descending melody, the vamp sweetly beckons, “Lord, please sing with me.”

A rather enthusiastic project, TROG is an impressive debut for this local group. Their infectious energy and playful style is likely to appeal to the young and the young at heart. Moreover, their willingness to fuse older musical standards with fresh energy and sounds make them a group to listen for in years to come.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review August 1st, 2015

Jason Nelson – Jesus Revealed


Title: Jesus Revealed

Artist: Jason Nelson

Label: RCA Records

Format: CD and MP3

Release date: January 16, 2015


Jason Nelson  has been described on iTunes as a “worship leader, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and soulful contemporary singer/songwriter.” A factor that is pivotal in the making of his recent album, Jesus Revealed, is the conspicuous and fiery desire to project his gospel music as a passionate worship of God. This spiritual keenness was already apparent in July 2014 when he released the single, “I Am” (track 5), a cool worship song that “personifies God speaking to his people of His perfect ability and power through Jason’s voice” (New Release Today)––a theme that seems to run through the entire album in variety of ways.

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However, what is intriguing about Jesus Revealed is its heterogeneity of styles. Listening to “Right In This Place” one gets an impression––given its very hot and upbeat tempo––of being transported to the arena of techno, until the chorus enters with a homophony that seems to betray immediately the religious trajectory of the track. On the other hand, the preceding track “So In Love” has a gentle swing with string accompaniment that is characteristic of bluegrass.  “I See the Lord” features the worship-inviting voice of Tasha Page-Lockhart, a well-known Christian R&B and urban contemporary gospel artist and musician who is famous for winning the Sunday Best gospel singing competition for consecutive six seasons. The ensuing track (10), “The Lamb,” has every mien of worship, accompanied as it were by only a piano.

Other tracks include the “Opening – God Is Great” (1), “Pour Out Your Spirit” (2), “Can’t Stop Calling” (3), “Way Maker” (4), “Jesus Revealed” (6), “Never Ending Worship” (7), “I Can Run” (8), “There Is Something About That Name” (11), “I’m In Love With You (Intro)” ( 12), “I’m In Love With You” (13), “Shout Praise” (14), “In This Place” (15).

According to Jason Nelson’s website, “he pastors the Greater Bethlehem Temple Church, a thriving ministry in Randallstown, Maryland; however he is one of the most recognized voices in gospel music and is considered to possess a rare gift in the Body of Christ as he releases the power of the presence of God.” This summary is testimony of the high powered spiritual experience that one can expect to have while listening to Jesus Revealed.

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

View review July 1st, 2015

Casey J. – The Truth


Title: The Truth

Artist: Casey J.

Label: Marquis Boone Enterprises/Tyscot Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 21, 2015


The Truth!  And it was Pontius Pilate who once asked the very important question to Jesus: What is the truth? Probably for Casey J. Hobbs, fondly known as Casey J, truth is to be located in the life and lived reality of gospel worship music production. Her recent album The Truth was therefore primarily produced in a live worship session on January 30, 2015, at Fresh Start Church in Duluth, Georgia. Not in the studio! For her, gospel worship must really be live and hence lived.

Casey started out as a teacher  but was laid off, something that proved to be a grace inasmuch as she suddenly rose to become one of “the Top Ten of three different Billboard Magazine sales or airplay charts with her powerful debut radio single ‘Fill Me Up,’” as her biography puts it. The single constitutes the 9th and 12th track in the present album. Indeed it was a sign of greater things to come.

Listening to the first track of the album, “Let it Be Known,” one is immediately impressed by the confidence exuded and by her new approach to gospel performance. Indeed, it is all about a modern communal gospel-based worship. This is confirmed in the title track, “The Truth,” that bursts forth with an upbeat rhythm and full melodic accompaniment, while the message “You are my truth” is aggressively stated. On the song “I’m Yours,” she brings out what Bob Marovich refers to as “the ebullience of Casey’s vocal delivery, which oozes with optimism and kinetic energy,” a factor contributing in making the album a break out hit. In the brisk and breezy “Better,” the listener is treated to Casey’s energy and optimism. The same mien is seen in “Have Your Way,” a duet which Casey performs with Jason Nelson, which demonstrates her penchant for solid, almost orchestral-sized pop accompaniment. Other noteworthy tracks include “Oh You Bring,” “Your Heart,” “Never Run Dry,” and “Journal.”

Casey brings to gospel performance an attitude of total dedication. For her, “people and worship are my heart.” In saying this she desires “the environment of [her] performances to be about the worship and not so much about [herself as a person] or [her] artistic persona.” Her gospel “isn’t a traditional church sound – [but] worship in its purest form.”

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

View review July 1st, 2015

The Supreme Jubilees – It’ll All Be Over


Title: It’ll All Be Over  

Artist: The Supreme Jubilees

Label: Light in the Attic

Release date: January 27, 2015

Formats: CD, LP, MP3


The Supreme Jubilees constituted by the four Sanders brothers (Philip, Tim, Leonard, and Melvin) and two Kingsby brothers (Joe and David) first came to the limelight in the 1970s when they started to perform around California’s Central Valley church circuit. The gospel ensemble released their only album, It’ll All Be Over, in 1980 on its own S&K (Sanders & Kingsby) label.

As Jessica Hundley writes in the liner notes of this Light in the Attic reissue of the album, “its lyrics [are] drawn from the Old Testament, its sound from the church by way of the disco.” Indeed, the nine tracks have a disco soul feel, with “decent… uptempo tunes… that have a tactile magic about them.” The upbeat nature is immediately felt as one listens to the gentle unfolding of the first track, “It’ll All Be Over.” Further, the liner notes declare ambitiously: “If God had a disco, the DJ would be playing California gospel-soul group The Supreme Jubilees.” The listener is then warned rather oxymoronically: “prepare to dance and contemplate death all at the same time.” This monition is literally verified as one listens to the second track “Do You Believe”:

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Other songs include “Thank You Lord” (track 3), “I Am on the Lord’s Side” (track 4), “You Don’t Know” (Track 5), “Standing in the Need of Prayer” (track 6), “Got a Right” (track 7), “We’ll Understand” (track 8), and “Stop Today” (Track 9). While laden with varied if complementary religious and deeply spiritual messages, these tracks are commonly marked by that so-called four-on-the-floor rhythmic pattern that is characteristic of disco music, consisting – more or less – in a uniform accentuation of all the units of beat in a simple common time signature. A veritable disco sacro, however paradoxical it may sound!

It’ll All Be Over is de facto apocalyptic both in reference and emphasis. But its apocalyptic posture has nothing to do with being gloomy; instead we have a musical picture suggesting – as Andy Beta observes (and as succinctly depicted in the album front picture) – that “the afterlife is as beauteous as the Pacific Ocean come sunset yet as warm as a baptismal dip in the Caribbean” (Pitchfork, February 13, 2015).

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

Listen on Spotify here.

View review July 1st, 2015

Robert M. Marovich – A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music


Title: A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music

Author: Robert M. Marovich

Publisher: University of Illinois Press (Music in American Life series)

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, eBook

Release date: March 3, 2015


Gospel music has had immeasurable impact on the African American church and on the sound and performance of American popular music. As we look forward to gospel’s new frontiers—international gospel choirs and conferences, nationally televised competitions, and proliferation on radio and digital media—it is also prudent to look back and remember, reflect, and record the history of this important cultural expression. In his monumental text, A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music, gospel music historian and radio personality Robert Marovich explores one of the most important and contested discussions on gospel music—its origins. Using extensive interviews, archival research including materials at Archives of African American Music and Culture (AAAMC), articles from the Chicago Defender, and numerous secondary sources, he outlines why Chicago, Illinois is THE uncontested birthplace of gospel music. Moreover, he highlights the major artists and musicians, churches, choirs, quartets, publishers, radio and television broadcasts, and record labels that were instrumental in the development and dissemination of this art form.

A City Called Heaven is divided into two sections: “Roots” which spans from the 1920s to the late 1930s, and “Branches” which examines gospel’s evolution from the 1940s to 1970. In a candid, yet straightforward tone, Marovich crafts a narrative about this Christian community of musicians who would transform their ordinary circumstances into an extraordinary expression of faith. The substance of the text rests on five main arguments: 1) Gospel music was a means for African American migrants to establish their place within Chicago’s African American church and social communities because it allowed them to combine their southern worship styles with urban musics and sensibilities; 2) Gospel music transcended denominational boundaries while also being influenced by unique denominational styles; 3) The gospel music industry was birthed from the entrepreneurial ingenuity of often fiscally oppressed African American migrants; 4) Gospel music would be periodically altered by younger artists; and 5) There were six historic “tipping points” or events that helped establish gospel music including Thomas A. Dorsey’s founding of the first modern gospel chorus at Ebenezer Baptist church and the founding of (Sallie) Martin & (Kenneth) Morris Music Studio, the largest African American owned gospel publishing enterprise.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this work is the sheer breadth of information that is presented. Great care is given to move beyond simple biographical sketches of more well-known innovators like Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, Theodore Frye, Roberta Martin and Sallie Martin to ground the story in the sights, sounds, language and community of Black Chicago.  Marovich gives ample space to the distinctive worship styles and contributions of clergy and churches that performed and transformed gospel music like Pilgrim Baptist Church, First Church of Deliverance, Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, and the Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer. Likewise, the stories of many of lesser known artists like Magnolia N. Lewis Butts (whose work helped the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Chorus become a mobilizing force for gospel music industry) are celebrated. Marovich’s extensive background in traditional gospel recordings is particularly suited to this text as he offers specific evidence (and educational speculation) for the musical innovations and influence of gospel artists like Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, and the Highway QCs.

Marovich passionately supports his main arguments as he illustrates how Chicago became the first gospel center and an integral part of a national network of gospel communities. Because of the large number of singers, groups, and recordings that are mentioned, certain discussions are rather encyclopedic. Undoubtedly, a lack of available resources and space limitations necessitated that some histories be abbreviated in the text. Nevertheless, A City Called Heaven is a valuable resource that points to the many voices that were important to the success of gospel music. With his text, Marovich extends an invitation to readers and gospel music lovers to celebrate the beautiful and spirit-filled contributions of those who paved the gospel highway from Chicago to heaven and back.

Bob Marovich has partnered with the AAAMC to digitize and preserve the audiotapes of interviews conducted for this book. The original tapes and transcripts will become a permanent part of the Robert Marovich Collection available at the AAAMC.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review June 2nd, 2015

Lonnie Hunter – #Getitdone


Title: #Getitdone

Artist: Lonnie Hunter, feat. Structure

Label: Tyscot Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 19, 2015


A soloist!  A celebrated gospel choir conductor! A radio personality! A worship pastor! All these epithets aptly refer to a Chicago-born gospel music star, Lonnie Hunter—an accomplished Stellar Award winning recording artist, who just recently released his fifth album #Getitdone.

Hunter’s new album is a mélange of styles ranging “from full-fledged Gospel choral pieces to smooth R&B Christian jams to more contemporary soul-accentuated pop offerings.”

Nevertheless, each of the tracks is a unique and accomplished piece in itself. The opening track “He’s Worthy” is an upbeat praise song, outstanding for its “roof-piercing” soprano refraining of the title. This fiery intro is followed by the gentle-sounding “Forever I Will,” whose cool and meditative prelude accentuates its worship mien. “Devotion” is mellifluous in its choral harmony and deeply moving in its swing-like fast waltz rhythm, and the dance music returns with “He’s Been Good.” But caveat! It is a dance based on meditative reminiscence of what God has done:

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The basic alternation of gentle and upbeat rhythmic structure is followed in the remaining seven tracks. Thus in tracks 5, 6, 8 and 10 respectively—“Yes,” “Here In Your Presence,” “You’re My God,” and “My Tribute”—one finds a gentle and meditative musical mood that is characteristic of worship music, while the upbeat tracks 7, 9 and 11—“What He’s Done,” “#Getitdone” and “In Your Face (The Wedding Song)”—are more fitting for lively praise sessions.

But why “Get it done;” what has gotten to be done? Timothy Yap underscores that #Getitdone “is an album of songs with messages that point both vertically and horizontally. Not only does Hunter push us not to procrastinate in the giving of our worship to God, but this album also brims with lots of wizened practical nuggets of how to live lives as God’s kingdom builders.” The religious trajectory of the album is certainly fait accompli!

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

View review June 2nd, 2015

Saved & Sanctified: Songs of the Jade Label


Title: Saved & Sanctified: Songs of the Jade Label

Artist: Various

Label: Numero

Formats: LP, FLAC, MP3

Release date: May 27, 2015


The phrase Saved and Sanctified is one well known in Pentecostal and Holiness Movement circles. An online source defines salvation as being “brought into an intimate, fellowship and relationship with the Lord [Jesus] through the new birth” while sanctification “is an ongoing process in the believer’s life that is accomplished by the Holy Spirit within, separating the believer from sin.” Numero adopts Saved and Sanctified as the title of a compilation of traditional gospel tunes released as singles in the 1960s they describe as “the rawest, DIY gospel ever resurrected.”

The setting for the Songs of the Jade Label is Chicago, where Gene Autry Cash came with his Old Dominion musical squad in a bid to procure a lasting recording of “their fiery, unadorned sounds.”  Cash soon had a huge following as his recording firm attracted simple devout folks, “those God-fearing artists,” who wanted to have their gospel singles “cut… indelibly to plastics.” The present album is therefore not a selection of songs released by professional and huge money-making gospel music stars but features even “family bands with wailing kids” as well as “barely amateur groups sourced from local parishes, infused with reverberations of country and western and deep soul.”

Released in LP and digital formats, the compilation includes 13 tracks and 11 different musical ensembles:
Side A

  1. “Didn’t It Rain” – Rev. Solomon King and the Glory Bound Singers
  2. “Got to Make a Hundred” – Harmony Four
  3. “I Want To Be More Like Him” – The Gospel Song Birds
  4. “Soul Couldn’t Be Contented” – The Inspirational Souls
  5. “Saved and Sanctified” – Brother Hayes and the Farmer Singers
  6. “My Shoes” – Flying Eagle Gospel Singers

Side B

  1. “Why is the Blood Running Warm?” – The Mighty Messiahs
  2. “Never Alone” – The Gospel Clouds
  3. “I Love the Lord” – The Mountavie Gospel Singers
  4. “Satisfied Mind” – Reverend Jennings
  5. “God Won’t Let You Down” – Southern Faith Singers
  6. “Family Prayer” – Flying Eagle Gospel Singers
  7. “Wake Up Country” – Sons of Christ

Saved and Sanctified is a collection of songs performed by artists whose sole purpose was to declare the gospel message as it is and feels, without exaggerated concern for musical finesse or pointless perfectionism geared to marketability. As stated in the press release, “glinting authenticity shines from every track like a diamond in the unpolished rough—each group completely convinced that salvation comes through song.” What could be more wonderful!

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

View review June 2nd, 2015

McCrary Sisters – Let’s Go


Title: Let’s Go

Artist: McCrary Sisters

Label: MCC Records

Format: CD

Release date: March 10, 2015


The McCrary Sisters (Ann, Deborah, Regina and Alfreda) are the daughters of the late Rev. Samuel McCrary, one of the founding members of The Fairfield Four, the famed and fabulous quartet dedicated exclusively to the performance of traditional gospel. Their talent is grounded in the musical grooming they received in their family. Mike Tash, writing about the four sisters, indicates that for them, “music is a birthright, a lifelong love affair, a sometimes career, an indescribable joy, and occasionally, a cross to bear.” While their musical virtuosity initially led them individually to work with different artists, they eventually came together as the “McCrary Sisters” in 2011, each bringing “a unique energy and virtuosity to the group [as well as] varied experiences within the worlds of pop, rock, R&B and gospel music,” as Amy Sciarretto indicates.

Their new album, Let’s Go, which blends traditional and contemporary gospel music, was produced by Nashville-based singer/songwriter and musician Buddy Miller, who is featured prominently on guitar, along with other Nashville session musicians. Andy Argyrakis notes: “while there are contemporary aspects within this set of rootsy gospel romps… these four daughters of Fairfield Four tenor Rev. Samuel McCrary also cling tightly to tradition, especially when it comes to lyrics that edify and uplift.”  Regina narrates the story in an interview with Chuck Dauphin: “When Buddy Miller agreed to produce the CD for the McCrary Sisters, we were overwhelmed with joy. Buddy is family to us. The first thing that Buddy did was give us 50 songs and asked us to pick 20, then from those, we narrowed it down to the 10 on the CD.”

Let’s Go eventually grew to include 16 solid gospel tracks with varying mood and aesthetics. Opening with the brief, a capella intro “Let’s Go,” the McCrary’s move on to the energetic drum, organ and guitar accompanied track “That’s Enough.”  Shifting to a contemplative mood on the third track, “By the Mark,” one gets a feel of traditional gospel accompanied by a sole guitar. The fourth track, an energetic arrangement of the spiritual “I John,” is also sparsely accompanied by guitar and percussion—including drum and tambourine—while the following track, “Dr. Watts,” has every feature of a lined out hymn.

Fire” is a veritably fiery track with its hot drum rhythm and theme of Holy Spirit’s fire. Next is a wonderful arrangement of Rev. James Cleveland’s “Use Me Lord” with a triple meter, something that Horace Boyer would describe as a gospel waltz. “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round,” a famous Civil Rights song originally released by and featuring the Fairfield Four, was probably included as an important way of underscoring the connection between the quartet and the McCrary Sisters, given that their father was instrumental to the revival of the Fairfield Four after a 30 years hiatus. “I Am Free” can best be described as a celebration of the freedom of the Christian in dance, what with its upbeat melodic and percussive rhythm!
In the tenth track, “Hold On,” the listener is treated to a very brief quasi-esoteric a capella interlude with the important admonition to patience since “everything will be alright.” The uncanny air thus unleashed is carried over to “Driving Your Mama Crazy,” which ends with a bright and brisk movement and the plea “Help me, Lord, help me!” The meditative mood returns with “I’d Rather Have Jesus” which opens with a solo voice. A sense of mystery ensues in the musical narration of the miraculous sourcing of water in the desert by Moses in “He Split the Rock,” appropriately accompanied by relentlessly pounding rhythms and rock guitars. This is followed by the short a capella track “Old Shoes,” a rather asymmetrical interpolation in the flow of gospel message and sound based on a traditional song popularized by the Fairfield Four.  The penultimate track, “Hold the Wind,” begins with a rather cathedral-like organ intro before the McCrarys enter in a sustained 4-part harmony, while an unidentified male soloist takes over the lead. The album wraps up with an a capella arrangement of the traditional song “Walk In the Light,” which summarizes the entire spiritual message of the album.

The McCrarys are obviously are proud of their roots and heritage. During an interview with Chuck Dauphin, Regina stated: “The greatest blessing is that we get to sing about who and what we believe in—our God. And we get to give honor to our father, the late Rev. Samuel H. McCrary, who was the glue that kept the Fairfield Four together until he passed away.” And Alfreda added, “It is an honor to be able to sing the music that we were raised on—the old landmark music—with my sisters. This music is giving honor and thanks to some that made the way for us.”

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

View review May 1st, 2015

The Fairfield Four – Still Rockin’ My Soul


Title: Still Rockin’ My Soul  

Artist: The Fairfield Four

Label: The Fairfield Four Inc.

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 10, 2015


The Fairfield Four, a vocal quartet that has existed for almost a century, presently includes Levert Allison (tenor), Larrice Byrd, Sr. (baritone), Bobbye Sherrell (tenor) and Joe Thompson (bass). The quartet has been dedicated to performing traditional gospel music in the traditional “a cappella” manner since its founding in 1921. Jerry Zolten, who penned the liner notes, characterizes the a cappella singing style of the Fairfield Four as “intertwined voices rhythmically pulsating in harmony, anchored by a deep bass, lead vocal over the top” and “rooted in that hazy past before the era of recorded sound.” This history is recounted in the PledgeMusic video promo for the album:

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The traditional bent of the Fairfield Four is easily understandable when one recalls that the ensemble originated within Nashville’s Fairfield Baptist Church. Their prominence was heightened by the role played by their songs. For example, Zolten explicitly indicates that their “voices were heard on the soundtrack that inspired and propelled the Civil Rights Movement,” including the song “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around” (track 9).  The Fairfield Four therefore see themselves as bearers and custodians of a tradition. Larrice Byrd, Sr. comments, “We all grew up listening to this style of music and we understand it. We want to keep the tradition alive forever.”

The Fairfield Four’s new album, Still Rockin’ My Soul, is their first release in almost 20 years. Concerning the musical selections, Zolten affirms that “the songs collected here are all part and parcel of the traditional Fairfield Four canon.” The opening track, “Rock My Soul,” is accompanied only by hand clapping and foot tapping, while on the spiritual “Children Go Where I Send Thee” country music singer Lee Ann Womack joins Joe Thompson on lead vocals. In “I Love the Lord (He Heard My Cry)” and the reprise which closes the album, one hears the organ accompanying a melodic chanting characteristic of the African American devotional line-out hymn. Additional tracks include “Come on in this House,” “Baptism of Jesus,” “Jesus Gave Me Water” (by Lucie E. Campbell), “My Rock,” “I Got Jesus and That’s Enough” (by Dorothy Love Coates), “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around,” and “Highway to Heaven” (by Thomas A. Dorsey).

In sum, if one accepts the fact – and this, with good reason – that the human voice is the best of musical instruments, then the Fairfield Four exemplifies this in a most convincing way on Still Rockin’ My Soul. Gospel music historian Bil Carpenter has mentioned the instrument-like timbre of the Fairfield Four quartet, noting that “when the Fairfield Four sang, they utilized the full extent of their voices, moving easily from deep, rolling basslines to the staccato upper peaks of the tenor range, all executed with precise, intricate harmonies and ever-shifting leads.” Call it instrumental vocality, or vocal instrumentality, if you like!

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

View review May 1st, 2015

Bala Brothers – Bala Brothers


Title: Bala Brothers

Artist: Bala Brothers

Label: Warner Classics

Formats: CD, DVD, Blu-Ray

Release dates: March 3, 2015 (CD); March 24 (DVD)


A scriptural verse says that “it is a trifle in the eyes of the Lord, in a moment, suddenly to make the poor rich.” This wise saying typifies the life trajectory of the Bala Brothers: Zwai, Loyiso, and Phelo. They were poor, marginalized and unprivileged. Nevertheless, according to the liner notes provided by Andrew Ousley, “the three gifted South African brothers [having been] lifted out of poverty through their sheer musical talent… promise to become one of the most exciting new vocal trios to take the world stage.” As recounted by the most senior of the Balas, Zwai, the road to their attainment of greatness started with his winning a national singing competition, a victory that would have merited him automatic admission to the famous Drakensberg Boys Choir School. But the admission was not easy to come by in the face of the apartheid institution in South Africa. However, through the help and support of his music teacher, Bunny Ashley-Botha, he was able to overcome the racial barrier of apartheid. Ipso facto, he became the first ever Black member of the previously all-White Boys School.

At present, “the Bala Brothers are household name in south Africa . . . thrilling audiences with their fusion of operatically-trained voices, rich harmonies and traditional South African melodies and rhythms” as Andrew Ousley indicates. Archbishop Desmond Tutu acclaims: “The Bala brothers are part of the good South African story. They have made it against great odds. Boy, can they sing! Wow!”  The present self-titled album, dedicated to Bunny Ashley-Botha and released in both CD/DVD formats, is a collection of songs filmed and recorded live at a performance offered by the Balas in conjunction with the Drakensberg Boys Choir at the Lyric Theater, Gold Reef City, South Africa on 24th and 25th of October, 2014. Indeed, the fantastic trio is scheduled to storm North America with their sweet melodies during their concert tour of the United States in May 2015.

The repertoire on the Bala Brothers is drawn from varied sources, and some of the pieces have unique messages. For example, the opening track “Circle of Life” is taken from the Disney musical The Lion King, composed by Elton John and Tim Rice. Needless to say, the story about the triumph of justice over tyranny in the animal kingdom could be a veiled allusion to the successful dismantling of the apartheid structure in South Africa. The same theme of resistance is metaphorically invoked in “Something Inside So Strong” an anti-apartheid anthem that was originally composed by Labi Siffre as a protest song for the Israeli occupation of Palestine:

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The dance-prone track “Under African Skies” evokes the visit of the original composer Paul Simon, a controversial visit that was nevertheless was ultimately geared towards racial reconciliation and the breakdown of racial barriers. On the gentle moving choir-like “Masibuyelane,” a Xhosa love song written by Zwai and Loyiso, as well as “Girl Without Name,” Loyiso accompanies himself on the piano with the orchestra in the background. Other tracks include “Weeping” (Dan Heymann), “Going Home” and  “Meguru” (traditional, arr. Michael Whalen), “He Lives In You” (Lebohang Morake, Jay Rifkin, Mark Mancina), “Ndize” (Mavo Solomon, Zwai Bala), “The Crossing” (Johnny Clegg), “And So It Goes” (Billy Joel), and “Pata Pata” (Jerry Ragovoy, Miriam Makeba). The DVD also includes two bonus tracks: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Rogers & Hammerstein) and “Maria” (Bernstein/Sondheim).

The crucial hermeneutic to understanding the Balas is not mainly in the compositional originality of the songs they perform. The present album does not pretend in any way to emphasize such originality. The key to interpreting the project is located in their attempt to dress these songs with a unique vocality and musical sonority, allowing them to deliver new messages with a fresh spiritual and emotional impact.

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

View review April 1st, 2015

Robert E. Person – Love Divine


Title: Love Divine

Artist: Robert E. Person

Label: REP Music

Formats: CD, Digital (MP3, MP3 320, and FLAC)

Release date: February 3, 2015


Listening to Robert Person’s recent jazz gospel album, Love Divine, one may have the feeling of swimming in a river of crazily joyful and mysteriously enchanting out-of-the-world experience of divine love. The new release creates a sensation of “an intense feeling of deep affection and personal attachment.” Robert Person was musically gifted but he further developed his talent at Morehouse College as well as the University of the District of Columbia. He was recently elected for a 2015 “Wammie Award” for Gospel/Inspirational Vocalist of the Year, coming on the heels of his 2014 DVM Christian Music Award as the artist of the year.

Person’s present 12-track album, deriving from several song-writers, is a follow-up to his release of the single “Testify,” composed by Ayesha Daniels and arranged by Person and jazz pianist Allyn Johnson. This single is the opening track of Love Divine and has been described as “an immaculate celebratory musical expression of the gratitude of God’s Love Divine.”

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The next two songs speak of Love: the dance oriented “I Really Love You” and “Love Divine.” On the latter Person’s employment of the vocalese technique sounds melismatic, being as it were, a veritable “open-mouth,” “wild,” “wordless” contemplation of the immensity of the Love Divine. The relentlessly esoteric “Come Sunday,” featuring a jazzy pianistic improvisation by Allyn Johnson, is followed by the quiet and sonorous, semi-recitative musical meditation of the tracks “Healed” and “Somewhere.”

In the swinging “Take a Love Song” and gently march-like “Just Because,” one encounters a cache of intensely harmonic sound that fills the listener with an aura of the uncanny, so characteristic of jazz, evoking the incomprehensible depth of Divine Love which these tracks celebrate. Particularly in “Take a Love Song,” there is the return of the wordless melisma of the “Love Devine” track together with a form of chord progression that reminds one of the musical mysticism of the 19th century Austrian composer, Anton Bruckner. In “For Me,” it seems like the artist is saying: It’s time to dance out the love of God. But after dance comes a meditation on the heavily piano-accompanied “A Word of Grace.” The meditation extends in the guise of quasi-recitative on “God Has a Plan” before the emergence of an upbeat chorus in the later part of the track. The last track, “Because of You,” tells the story of Robert Person’s past. It is an energetic retrospection on the past for which the musician give thanks, acknowledging that all graces and good things of his life is attributable to God whom he addresses in the second person: “I’m here because of you.”

Perhaps it would be good to end with Sarah Hearn’s characterization of the new album: “The Love Divine CD release was Person at his best, offering a smooth, engaging musical encounter that felt like a dear friend lovingly dropping by with uplifting tunes of hope and joy carried on the wings of soothing, luxurious vocals.” Certainly, Love Divine is jazz gospel at its best!

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

View review April 1st, 2015

Erica Campbell – Help 2.0


Title: Help 2.0

Artist: Erica Campbell

Label: Entertainment One

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: March 31, 2015


Erica Campbell of powerhouse gospel duo Mary Mary (also comprised of her sister Tina Campbell), established herself as a solo artist in 2014 with the release of her debut project Help. That project has now garnered numerous awards including a Grammy for Best Gospel Album, a Dove Award and several Stellar Awards at this year’s showcase including CD of the Year and Albertina Walker Female Vocalist of the Year. Help featured hit singles like “A Little More Jesus” and the title song “Help,” featuring Christian rap artist Lecrae, which both spent some time atop the Billboard Gospel charts. Feeling that she had “more to say” musically, Campbell has released a re-issue of her first album titled Help 2.0.

This project features remixes of most of the songs from the first album with new collaborations. Of particular note are songs like “More Than a Lover Remix,” which features a funky dance inspired accompaniment and the upbeat electronic vocal manipulations of Mr. Talkbox.  Similarly, the track “Nobody Else (Thriller Mix)” sonically harkens to the pop dance music of the 1980s. “A Little More Jesus” receives an update via the new vocal contributions of Fantasia and Lisa Knowles.Campbell also includes two songs, “Looking Like” and “Help,” as they were originally released since she considered them too good to “touch.” However, topping off the album are two new selections making waves on television (via Campbell’s We tv reality show Mary Mary) and social media.  The single “More Love,” written by Campbell and her husband/producer, Warryn Campbell was inspired by recent social unrest and protests sparked by the untimely deaths of African American men in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York. Through their song, the Campbells sought to emphasize the importance and power love because they believe that it “truly does change things.”

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Her second new piece, “I Luh God,” is garnering attention for its blending of a hip hop “trap beat” with a Christian message. While Campbell is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of gospel music (i.e. “God in Me,” “Shackles,” etc.), here she not only sings, but can be heard rapping about why she loves God over a contemporary (and some would say secular) track. Nevertheless, I find the entire project—including “I Luh God”—to be musically stimulating and lyrically proactive. The remixes and song additions make Help 2.0 well worth a listen and in some instances, may even outshine the original releases.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review April 1st, 2015

Pastor Charles Jenkins & Fellowship Chicago – Any Given Sunday


Title: Any Given Sunday

Artist: Pastor Charles Jenkins & Fellowship Chicago

Label: Capitol Christian Music Group

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: March 17, 2015


On the heels of the celebrated 2012 release The Best of Both Worlds, five-time Stellar Award winning artists Pastor Charles Jenkins and Fellowship Chicago (of the historic Chicago church Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church) have released their second project Any Given Sunday.  Mostly composed by Jenkins, this new project showcases his tried and true formula of simple melodies and straightforward lyrics perfect for Sunday morning church service. Jenkins characterizes Any Given Sunday as a celebration of the live worship experience that also captures the diverse repertoire that can be heard at Fellowship during any of their several services.

The album opens with “I’m Blessed,” which pays homage to Fellowship Missionary’s founding pastor, Rev. Dr. Clay Evans. The mid-tempo traditional gospel song was initially recorded and popularized by Evans on his 2003 album Still in the Mix, in which he provides a sermonette (backed by a choir) encouraging listeners to practice gratitude rather than complain.  Evans returns here with vocalists Shawn Hodo and John P. Kee to offer similar sentiments while urging congregants to always remember the “gift-Giver” [God] and not simply the gifts that He offers. Another traditional gospel song featured here is the up-tempo praise number “Do it for Me,” led by the energetic powerhouse Beverly Crawford. Undergirded with a prominent handclapping, foot-patting rhythm accentuation, the song speaks directly to God petitioning Him for assistance in life’s difficult circumstances.

Any Given Sunday includes several contemplative, yet emotive worship songs such as “Just to Know Him” and “Hide Me from the Rain” that express a desire to have a divine and spiritual experience. The first piece includes two reprises featuring the distinctive voices of Byron Cage and Jonathan McReynolds. With a gentle, yet assertive delivery, Fellowship begins the song echoing Jenkins in unison as he describes attributes of God such as “redeemer,” “savior,” and “provider.” As the choir moves to the climax of the piece, they swell into the chorus declaring in three-part harmony, “Just to know Him, Just to know him, Jesus Christ the Son of the living God.”  This chorus provides ample space for expert vocalist Byron Cage to melodically improvise and even segue into the popular Gloria Gather tune, “There is Something about that Name” (1970). The second piece, “Hide Me from the Rain,” has equally modest lyrics with an easily memorable melody. However, it features more complex instrumentation with layers of strings, percussion instruments, keyboards, guitar, and synthesized sounds. Led by Jenkins, the song expresses an emotional urgency as crescendos to an excited plea, “Come on Jesus, Come on Jesus…”, wherein they request God’s divine protection.

The current standout track of this album is the single “#War” which sits at #7 on the Billboard Gospel Song chart. Composed by Jenkins and Rodney East, this selection combines down home “country” gospel rhythmic and harmonic style with contemporary electronic sound production. The song is introduced with a snippet of a live sermon in which Jenkins preaches to his congregation, urging them to “fight back” when evil forces attempt to attack or distract them. He describes “#War” as “an anthem of determination, of spiritual resolve… when life gets tough, we’ve got to get tougher.” The song opens with a basic drum track, jaunty trombone, and tambourine which set the stage for Jenkins’ singing-speech style in which he testifies, “I got joy in my soul, God is in control / I got Satan on my trail, but I’m singing all is well / He’s attacking every day, but I’m watching while I pray / No matter the attack, I won’t turn back / This means war!”  This catchy, repetitive selection easily invites communal participation as the refrain “This means war!” frequently returns rallying believers to both sing along and persevere through faith in God.

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Any Given Sunday is a comfortable blend of traditional and contemporary gospel music that is creative, yet familiar.  It is a musical snapshot into worship at a local church while reaching beyond that space to touch the ears and hearts of listeners all over the nation and even the world. Moreover, this album is perfect for individuals and groups who are interested in learning new, simple yet substantive gospel music for worship or educational purposes.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review April 1st, 2015

Brian Courtney Wilson – Worth Fighting For


Title: Worth Fighting For

Artist: Brian Courtney Wilson

Label: Motown Gospel

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 6, 2015



Brian Courtney Wilson is a fairly recent addition to the gospel music industry, making his notable debut in 2009 with the project Just Love which earned him two Dove Award Nominations. Just a few years later, he garnered a Stellar Award performing with the all-male group United Tenors* and has now released his third solo album, Worth Fighting For, under the Motown Gospel label.  Recorded live at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, this album features songs primarily written by Wilson in collaboration with the project’s producer, Aaron Lindsey. The album’s title is indicative of its theme which grew out of Wilson’s personal resolve that despite what he recognizes as commonplace cynicism toward authority and organized religions, the church (and subsequently love and hope) is “still worth fighting for and preserving.”

Worth Fighting For explores the intimate and complex relationships between individuals and a supreme God. This live recording opens with selections designed for corporate worship, like the up tempo, guitar and percussion driven “Stand My Ground” which is a self-encouraging prayer in which the singer boldly declares, “I’ve decided not to give way to the fear/ I’ve discovered that your presence means my help is near.” This selection is followed by a song based on the popular Biblical scripture Ps. 118:24 titled “This is the Day.” Written to inspire celebration and audience participation, this song is repetitive with simple lyrics and call and response between Wilson and his backing singers. The accompaniment is energetic and full-bodied, while the catchy melody rings through, inviting listeners to sing along.

The songs that comprise the middle of this 11 track album provide a glimpse into the heart and emotion of this project. The title track “Worth Fighting For” is perhaps the most moving song of the album as it offers a transparent discussion of Wilson’s struggles with insecurity and the ways in which his faith was a catalyst for spiritual and personal growth. This song begins with Wilson’s solo voice and pared down accompaniment – primarily keyboard and drums – as he talks to God stating, “You met me, deep in my despair/ To show me you would never leave me there.” As the song progresses, additional instrumentation and background voices add to the texture of the song emphasizing the refrain, “Eyes haven’t seen/ ears haven’t heard/ all You have planned for me/ And nothing can separate me from Your love/ when there’s so much more/ still worth fighting for.”  The song gradually crescendos to a climax as Wilson recounts his hopes, dreams, and relationships that (with God’s help) he will fight to preserve.

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The acoustic guitar driven song “Mindful” is also an intimate prayer to God, but instead of an emphatic declaration of belief, this selection is a calm offering of gratitude and love. The sweet refrain, “I didn’t know you were all I needed until you were all I had…” expresses his dependence on God who has served as a sustaining force throughout his life.

In a change of pace, “It Will Be Alright” is a fun, mid-tempo tune that relies heavily on the rhythm section to create musical interest. This song includes emphatic musical “breaks,” allowing Wilson space to improvise lyrics and sermonize to listeners, encouraging them remain faithful despite difficult circumstances. Similarly, “Hope Saved My Life” suggests that hope is the primary ingredient needed for success in life. It blends gospel elements and funk inspired electric bass with the clean, upbeat delivery of inspirational music crafted for the musical theater stage.

Worth Fighting For showcases all of the elements that make Wilson a refreshing voice in contemporary gospel music. Beyond the sincerity of his lyrics, his thoughtful and sensitive delivery makes him an engaging performer. Even while singing highly emotional or energetic songs, Wilson allows the lyrics and the melody to shine brilliantly. For these reasons, Worth Fighting For is a thoughtful and artful project that is well worth a listen. Additionally, contemporary gospel music fans will be delighted to learn that the deluxe version of this album features three bonus tracks—two medleys of Wilson’s previously released music as well as an old school R&B inspired song, “Greatest Love,” featuring Stellar and Grammy Award winning vocalist Tina Campbell of the Mary Mary duo.

*United Tenors is comprised of Wilson, Dave Hollister, Eric Roberson, and founder Fred Hammond – all of whom have had successful independent careers as R&B or Gospel artists.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review March 3rd, 2015

Mighty Clouds of Joy – Down Memory Lane, Chapter 2


Title: Down Memory Lane, Chapter 2

Artist: Mighty Clouds of Joy

Label: MCG Records

Formats: CD+DVD set

Release date: November 4, 2014



An aspect of gospel music that may possibly elude a casual listener—especially if he or she is from outside the circle of Black American culture—is the fact that gospel performance is simply “Just Having Chu’ch!” as Chester Baldwin puts it. Listening to the sounds of Joe Ligon and the Mighty Clouds of Joy on Down Memory Lane Chapter 2, and watching the congregants participating in the DVD version, one indeed has the immediate impression that the entire production is a church service.

According to Jason Ankeny (, the gospel quartet Mighty Clouds of Joy was formed in Los Angeles during the mid-’50s by schoolmates Joe Ligon and Johnny Martin, and since then they’ve “carried the torch for the traditional quartet vocal style throughout an era dominated by solo acts and choirs. Pioneering a distinctively funky sound which over time gained grudging acceptance even among purists,” the ensemble “pushed spiritual music in new and unexpected directions, even scoring a major disco hit.” Just like Chapter 1 of the Mighty Clouds of Joy’s production titled All That I Am (2013), the present double album includes both CD & DVD formats and was produced in worship context inside the church edifice of the Covenant Ministries International in Decatur, Georgia.

The songs are grouped in three major categories on both the CD and DVD, but their sequences are different.  On the CD, the ten song “Medley” comes first before the “Grace Medley,” with “God Can” and “Exaltation of Praise” serving as intermezzos. The DVD, however, opens with “Exaltation of Praise” which serves as an overture, while the “Medley” closes the disc. In the perpetually swinging Medley, one gets a feeling of what Barry Liesch describes as “free flowing praise” in which “songs are often stitched together into a medley by improvisational playing and modulation to create a sense of seamlessness, of one song flowing into the next.” The slow mien of “God Can,” which implies a worship song, contrasts with the upbeat disco-like rhythm of “Exaltation of Praise.” The CD closes with three variations of the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” composed by John Newton in 1779 to herald his spiritual conversion (track 3 on the DVD).

One could rightly guess that the fame of the Mighty Clouds is traceable to the fiery posture of Ligon’s preaching and vocal renditions “inspired by the radio broadcasts of Reverend C.L. Franklin.” This energetic approach has “became a trademark of Mighty Clouds of Joy’s records.” Says Ligon himself, “We wanted to go back to our roots in the ’60s, singing songs we were known for before the contemporary music came in.” Down Memory Lane Chapter 2 is about appropriately positing or collocating a traditional genre in a contemporary context.

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

View review March 3rd, 2015

Opal Louis Nations – Sensational Nightingales


Title: Sensational Nightingales: The Story of Joseph “Jo Jo” Wallace and the Early Days of the Sensational Nightingales

Author: Opal Louis Nations

Publisher: Scat Trax

Format: Book (soft cover,146 pages)

Release date: November 7, 2014


Radio host and gospel music collector Opal Louise Nations has worked with traditional gospel music for decades, researching and producing material for reissues on labels like AVI, Ace, and Jasmine. His work has put him in contact with a number of seasoned gospel artists whose music helped shaped the sound of African American protestant worship in the early and mid-20th century. Recognizing the significance of his experiences, Nations has authored his first book length text, Sensational Nightingales: The Story of Joseph “Jo Jo” Wallace and the Early Days of the Sensational Nightingales.

Written in a conversational tone, the book is easily accessible to most readers. In the space of 10 short chapters, Nations offers a brief history of Black gospel quartet singing in Philadelphia as well as an overview of the creation and rise of the Sensational Nightingales as a highly sought after ensemble. He primarily focuses on the multiple performers and personnel that made up the different versions of the group from its inception in 1949 to its later years in the 1980s. Beyond “Jo Jo” Wallace, he gives significant attention to lead singer Rev. Julius “June” Cheeks, later group member Charles Johnson, and manager Barney L. Parks. Nations weaves the personal recollections of Wallace and other quartet artists throughout his narrative, using their insights to illuminate interpersonal dynamics among performers as well as their individual connections to gospel music.  He also makes careful effort to highlight the group’s recordings on labels like Decca and Peacock as a solo act and in collaboration with other major gospel performers.

Clear documentation of interviews and secondary sources are scarce, rendering this text more of a casual oral history than an academic venture. However, Nations provides a useful annotated discography of the Nightingale’s recordings from 1959 to 1982 as well as listings of Cheeks’ and Johnson’s projects recorded without the Nightingales. He also includes a brief bibliography of resources (magazine and newspaper articles as well as book length biographies) that have additional information about the group.  Sensational Nightingales features 40 pages of photos that include promotional materials, candid group shots, and images of Wallace’s family and childhood. The text closes with highlights of the groups career from 1983-2013.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

Editor’s note: The Opal Louise Nations Collection is housed at the Archives of African American Music and Culture and currently includes over 300 articles on various subjects related to gospel music.

View review March 3rd, 2015

The Consolers – The Consolers Collection, 1952-62


Title: The Consolers Collection, 1952-62

Artist: The Consolers

Label: Acrobat

Format: 2-CD set

Release date: January 13, 2015



The core of the Consolers was a married couple that dedicated 41 years to fostering the gospel in its traditional mode: Sullivan Pugh (1925-2011), who served as the guitarist, and his wife Iola (d. 1994), who was the vocalist. Their repertoire, often based on spirituals, was influenced by the music of the Holiness Church (Sullivan was a lifelong member of the First Born Church of the Living God in Miami). The present double CD collection is a gathering by Acrobat Music – call it a harvest – of “all the singles issued by the Consolers from their first recordings as the Miami Soul Stirrers (and briefly as The Spiritual Consolers) in 1952 through 1962, plus the tracks from their first album in 1961 which were not otherwise released as singles.”

The ample liner notes provided by Frederic Adrian give insight into the evolution of the recording activities of the Consolers. Apart from their early trio configuration as the Miami Souls Stirrers, the Consolers are well known for having recorded with various labels—Glory, DeLuxe, Nashboro, Savoy/Malaco—as well as for their appearance at the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival. But the vast majority of the tracks on The Consolers Collection were originally recorded with Nashboro, a venture that turned out to be very successful because of the good rapport that was in place between the recording company and the Black-targeted radio station, WLAC.

Most of the songs on The Consolers Collection feature only the guitar, and at most hand-claps and occasionally the piano, as the accompaniment. Sullivan’s guitar style features “extended passages on a single string and uses legato, double stops, and endings incorporating artificial harmonics” together with “percussive, rhythmic chords to accent the back beat.” Yet the quest for sober accompaniment does not diminish the powerful and robust timbre of the voice in the various tracks of the album.

Within the collection, there is the famous “Fix Me Jesus” which, while it usually has a gentle movement as arranged spiritual, nevertheless is characterized here by a “tempo furioso.” The ensuing track “Wade in the Water” is also a well-known lyric in the African American religious music scene, although the version here has a different musical setting than the more popular tune. Similarly, “Nobody Knows” is a musical rearrangement of the famous spiritual of same title. On the other hand, the Consolers also focus a great deal on family life. This is clearly demonstrated with such beautiful tunes as “Every Christian Mother” and “How Long Has It Been Since You’ve Been Home.” The tenderly if romantically moving “Give Me My Flowers” seems to celebrate the life partnership of the Pughs, what with Sullivan’s presentation of a bouquet to Lola at its performance in 1956! Another highlight is the energy driven and faith-filled song “Never Could Have Made It” which comes in two parts (CD2, Track 4 and Track 5).

The Consolers Collection can be critically viewed as an instrument of immortalizing the duo of Sullivan and Iola Pugh, who stand as icons of undiluted traditional gospel performance which, even in the present era of contemporization, is still in demand by lovers of the “old stuff.” As Eli “Paperboy” Reed writes in the liner notes, “the music of The Consolers has the immediate ability to give… warm feeling inside.” If the emphasis in traditional gospel is on touching the soul of listeners, the Consolers certainly succeed.

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

View review March 3rd, 2015

The Staple Singers – Freedom Highway Complete


Title: Freedom Highway Complete

Artist: The Staple Singers

Label: Legacy

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: March 3, 2015


At a time when social, racial, and political upheaval continues to leave many in the U.S. (and in countries around the world) uneasy, the year 2015 also offers an opportunity to reflect on the complex dimensions of our history as well as the possibilities of our future. The year 1965 was pivotal in the decades-long crusade known as the Civil Rights Movement. After being systematically denied access to voting, national leaders of the movement joined forces with local leaders and community members to stage protests in the town of Selma, Alabama—a location known to deny African Americans the right to vote. The group planned a 5 day, 54 mile march to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, to demand unhindered access to the polls. Their first attempt on March 7 was soon to be called “Bloody Sunday,” as 600 marchers were stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by armed local white citizens and police who brutally beat protesters. After their second “symbolic” march ended at the bridge, protesters marched again on March 21, this time escorted on their journey to Montgomery by US Army Troops, the Alabama National Guard, and FBI agents. This large scale protest alongside continued efforts in local and national arenas helped to secure the passage of the Voting Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in August 1965.

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of these events, Legacy Recordings has re-released an album recorded by renowned gospel (and later soul) music performers, the Staple Singers, titled Freedom Highway Complete: Recorded Live at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church. In April 1965, this family group (including Roebuck “Pops,” Mavis, Pervis, Cleotha, and Yvonne), inspired by the marches, participated in a service at their local congregation, New Nazareth Church in Chicago. Freedom Highway features a re-mastered version of the concert including several previously unreleased or extended tracks that help establish the communal and occasionally playful tenor of this worship service.  Mobile recording was still a relatively new concept at the time that this event was captured, making for some occasionally uneven sound levels. However, the energy and movement of the service remain abundantly evident.

Pops Staples begins the service by inviting audience members to participate in worship, as well as acknowledging particular vocalists and instrumentalists including the New Nazareth Baptist Choir and L. C. Cooke, brother of the late soul music pioneer, Sam Cooke. The concert offers an interesting mix of original compositions, Civil Rights “freedom” songs, and popular gospel pieces of the day, all of which point to the urgency of “living right” and putting belief into action. The Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” receives enthusiastic audience participation with singing, hand clapping, and verbal affirmation – as it was a popular galvanizing device in Civil Rights Movement at marches and protests. Inspired by the brilliance and bravery of those who participated in the Selma to Montgomery march, Pops penned the album’s title song “Freedom Highway.” He explains, “From that march, words were revealed, and a song was composed.” His piece does not focus on the dream of freedom heard in “We Shall Overcome.” Rather, it critiques racially motivated injustices and killings and encourages freedom fighters to persevere until social and political equality are achieved. Mavis as the lead singer assertively declares, “Found dead people in the forest/ Tallahatchie River and lakes/ Whole world is wonderin’/what’s wrong with the United States?/ Yes we want peace/ if it can be found/ marching freedom highway/ and I’m not gonna turn around!”

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The gospel selections focus primarily on 1) soliciting divine assistance from God to overcome earthly struggles and/or 2) anticipation of heaven and the afterlife. For instance, Mavis performs gospel pioneer Thomas Dorsey’s famous piece “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” with Pops and the other group members providing background vocalizations in the form of harmonized, swooping “oohs.” In this selection, Mavis pleads for God’s assistance and guidance in her journey to her ultimate destination, “home.” Unlike many performances of this song, the Staples Singers’ version features no piano or organ; rather, it has a slow-rocking country gospel sound primarily accompanied by Pops’ acoustic guitar. The relevant lyrics and Mavis’ passionate delivery resonate with listeners who adamantly encourage her, “Sing the song, Mavis!” The themes of death and heaven are even more prevalent in songs like “When I’m Gone,” “When the Saint Go Marching In,” and “View that Holy City,” “What You Gonna Do?” and “Tell Heaven.” These selections are introspective celebrations of the difficulties and joys of life. They invite listeners to think carefully about their beliefs, actions, and legacy because one’s decisions have repercussions both in the afterlife and in the present-day.

One of the most engaging elements of this album is the inclusion of gospel sermonettes by Pops Staple. For example, “Help Me Jesus” features Pops reminiscing about his experiences of the music of church services in rural Mississippi. His storytelling is expertly undergirded by improvised guitar picking and by Mavis and her siblings as they interject deep colorful moans. The group brings the story to life by zealously yet intensely singing quotations of the songs that he mentions including “Amazing Grace,” “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee,” and “There’s a Leak in This Old Building.” Using music to recall the migration journey of many African Americans living in Chicago at this time, Pops initiates a collective remembering of the sights and sounds of worship “down home.”

Freedom Highway Complete is an excellent snapshot of the ways in which faith and freedom fighting often interwove during the Civil Rights Movement. At a time of deep social unrest, many church leaders, artists, and community members took deliberate action to effect positive change. The Staple Singers joined these ranks, often using music to challenge systems of oppression while asserting their spirituality and humanity. Beyond its artistic merit, Freedom Highway is an important historical document of the multifaceted social, political, cultural, and economic struggle to end injustice in the U.S. The Staple Singers’ messages continue to resonate today, encouraging all who are listening (even 50 years later) to keep “marching up freedom highway.”

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review February 3rd, 2015

James Fortune & Fiya – Live Through It


Title: Live Through It

Artist: James Fortune & Fiya

Label: Fiya World Entertainment

Formats: 2-CD set, MP3

Release date: February 25, 2014


Live Through It!, the first live album by James Fortune, was recorded in the sacred space of Word of Faith Church in Atlanta and features such well known songsters as Israel Houghton, Alexis Spight, Hezekiah Walker, Isaac Carree, Kirk Franklin, Tasha Cobbs, Zacardi Cortez, and Da’ T.R.U.T.H.  As one might guess,  such collaboration gives this gospel music production a mien of “contingential religious ministry” and serves to boost the message of the  album while showcasing the exceptional musical talents of the invited guest artists.

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Fortune explains the essence of this message in the title track: “In this life, you will have trouble. You can’t avoid it. You can’t get around it. But you can live through it.” He offers this intimately spiritual advice in the Intro of the first disc:  “Within the climate of difficulty, and the culture of fear, there is a light that shines upon us, a fortune of love that reminds us, ‘We can do it.’”

This leads directly into the energetic “Built For This,” in which Fortune vehemently gives the message, “I’m built to conquer”—a reference to the stability that attaches to the Christian faith. The next track, “Best Praise,” is a dance inciting piece fueled by a hot and vivacious drum accompaniment. Similarly, “All for Me” has been described as gospel techno, given its repetitive drum propelled rhythm and its projection of what Derrick May calls “technological spirituality.” The following track, “Forever,” is an intense meditation on the passion of Jesus coupled with the consequent eruption in ecstatic praise and thanksgiving, while the  upbeat “The Way You See Me” focuses on “seeing what you (i.e. God) see in me,” as Fortune puts it.  The rhythmically gentler but energy exuding “We Give You Glory” and its “Reprise” set a worship mood that continues in the closing song “Let Your Power Fall.”

The second disc opens with “Do a Work,” a prayer aggressively put forward to God “to fix my life,” followed by the urgent counsel to “Live Through It”: to embrace and conquer life problems by the grace of God. Of course, one way of conquering is to “Just Smile” (track 3), “even if you’re sinking.” This gentle “smiling” flow leads to the impassioned and musical motion-filled plea to “Empty Me,” a necessary step to total self-dedication to God. Next is the prayerful request to the Divine Spirit of Light, “Light the Way,” which comes in two moments (Tracks 5 and 6). The gentle but trustful song “Never Forsake Me,” with its seemingly enigmatic intro, leads into the swinging track “Miracles.” A highlight of this disc is the fiery “Praise Break,” celebrating God’s miracle with a spicy and hot musical movement. Needless to say, one is left in no doubt that this is the time to “dance to the breaking point.” The theme of miracles continues as the CD concludes with the life testimony of Bishop John Francis, meant to incite listeners to greater and more convinced praise of God.

Live Through It is couched in contemporary gospel production that will certainly appeal to young people. To quote Steve Leggett (, “James Fortune’s strength is in understanding how to put gospel and praise songs over to a young 21st century audience, and with his featured choir, FIYA (which stands for Free in Yahweh’s Abundance), he freely incorporates hip-hop arrangements and urban beats into his recordings.”

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

View review February 3rd, 2015

J. Moss – Grown Folks Gospel


Title: Grown Folks Gospel

Artist: J. Moss

Label: PMG Gospel

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 25, 2014


Grown Folks Gospel, by mega selling gospel artist J. Moss, marks the first release by PAJAM’s newly formed gospel music label founded by Paul Allen, Walter Kearney and J. Moss. Indeed as Paul Allen observes, “[the] initial response to Grown Folks Gospel confirms [the] belief that people really do want true feel good music.”

It is important to state that Grown Folks Gospel is a musical attempt to come to grips “with a world in which there are more questions than answers,” and this becomes clear as one listens to the various numbers with their variety of sounds and matching “ethos.” The first four tracks—“Your Work,” “You Make Me Feel” (featuring Faith Evans), “Pour Into Me,” and “Nothing” (featuring P.J. Morton)—have an obvious R&B feel and are apparently intimate dialogues between the creature and the Creator, although the side of the creature preponderates. In these tracks characterized by laid back rhythms and deep background bass, the artist contemplates being used by God as an instrument to display his glorious work. He feels God’s loving touch and cries out for more: “Pour Into Me,” more so as he realizes his nothingness.

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The album acquires an uncanny esoteric quality in “It Is What It Is,” which fits the air of wonder reflected in the lyrics in which the artist ponders the depth of God’s love and care. This contemplation bursts into the ecstatic joyful and jazzy movement “Hanging On,” featuring Wayman Tisdale. The joy also finds expression in the self-assuring dance beat of “Alright OK,” where “everything is alright, everything is ok” for the believer. However, the pondering air returns in “Beyond My Reach” with Fred Hammond in the lead, ‘crying-ly’ going over all the internal and external difficulties of the spiritual journey and calling out to be sustained by God. This prayer evokes memory of the famous American responsorial ‘Shepherd me O God beyond my wants, beyond my needs, from death into life.’ The earnest and desperate plea for help overflows into the next number that can be described as an adoration track as can be garnered from the title “Fall At Your Feet.” “Everyday,” featuring the contemporary gospel trio 21:03, bubbles with a swaggering confidence and is another meditation on God’s incomprehensible and unmerited love. Such love only calls for strong attitude of belief in God which is the focus of the closing song “Faith,” with Moss declaring he has no need of material things, only faith.

It is instructive to remember that for J. Moss, the album “is the undeniable oil from my refining moments,” a reference to life difficulties the artist passed through in recent times. He therefore wants the trials he went through to become a source of encouragement for others passing through painful moments. The artist’s prayer wish runs thus: “may this album speak to you and be a blessing to you as the undeniable oil is produced in your life through your refining moments.”

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

View review February 3rd, 2015

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